Pekka Rinne

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Capitals aren’t far from tough calls on Holtby, Backstrom, others

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The Washington Capitals’ core has been together for so long, it’s tough to imagine any key names leaving this team.

While winning that first-ever Stanley Cup eases some of the tensions of a possible end of an era (or at least parts of an era), the Capitals aren’t far from potentially making some tough decisions. As in: tougher decisions than trading Alex Burakovsky for cap considerations, which probably wasn’t that easy to begin with.

Consider that star center Nicklas Backstrom‘s bargain $6.7 million cap hit expires after next season, as does that of remarkably reliable starting goalie Braden Holtby, who could see an enormous raise from his team-friendly $6.1M cap hit.

Even Alex Ovechkin‘s once-seemingly-eternal contract is nearing an end; the superstar sniper’s $9.538M cap hit runs out after 2020-21, one season after Holtby and Backstrom are up.

In all three cases, it’s conceivable that players might work with the Capitals to try to keep the band together. Ovechkin’s situation is pretty fascinating; he’s already 33, and his career earnings are already above $103 million, according to Cap Friendly. Maybe he’d take a small cut to chase Wayne Gretzky’s goals record, and perhaps more rings? Would he instead opt to leave North America altogether?

Those rank among the most interesting Ovechkin-related questions, yet they’re down the line.

Holtby, 29, and Backstrom, 31, are more immediate concerns, and both have been underpaid compared to what they’d make on the open market for years now.

All things considered, it’s in net where the most drastic changes might happen. Sergei Bobrovsky‘s seven-year, $70M mammoth of a contract could really raise the bar for goalies at Holtby’s level, which is something even Capitals GM Brian MacLellan acknowledges, as NBC Sports Washington’s J.J. Regan pointed out on Tuesday.

“It’s a comparable,” MacLellan said of Bobrovsky’s new contract. “It’s a peer and they look like pretty similar players. They’ve had similar success and Holtby’s had a Stanley Cup on his resume.”

Indeed, there are some striking similarities between the two; in fact, with Holtby being almost exactly one year younger that Bob, he’ll also be the same as Bobrovsky if Holtby hits the free agent market in 2020. Holtby’s career save percentage (.918) is right behind that of Bobrovsky (.919), and while Bob has enjoyed bigger regular season moments (two Vezina trophies to one for Holtby), Holtby’s been the clutch performer. That’s not just leaning on Holtby’s Stanley Cup win, either; few netminders in NHL history have delivered in the postseason quite like Holtby has, as his career playoff percentage is a brilliant .928.

Really, the more you compare Holtby with Bobrovsky – and the other richest goalies in the NHL, like top earner Carey Price and his $10.5M cap hit – the more anxious the Capitals should get. It’s probably fair to even deem Holtby a touch bit underrated, and certainly underpaid.

Yet, the Capitals might not have the stomach to hand a lengthy, long-term investment in an aging goalie like Holtby. The Florida Panthers made a major gamble with Bobrovsky due in some way to desperation, and deep down, the Montreal Canadiens would take a mulligan on that Price deal, if they could.

Simply put, the aging curve is unkind to goalies, too. Maybe some goalies age better, at least based on past stars, but with skill and speed increasing at a high rate in the NHL during the past few seasons, it’s possible that goalies won’t be much luckier in battling Father Time than snipers or power forwards.

As Regan explores in-depth, the Capitals also have an appealing Plan B. Ilya Samsonov is a promising young goalie at age 22, and the pedigree of a first-round pick (22nd overall in 2015). While goalies are notoriously difficult to forecast, Samsonov generally draws positive reviews from those who watch prospects as a passion. Samsonov’s small sample size of AHL games hasn’t been world-beating yet, but his KHL numbers check out, so there’s a chance that he emerges to such a degree that the Capitals decide to go with a younger, cheaper option.

Overall, it seems like 2019-20 has the potential to make a big impact on that decision … although there’s at least the chance of an extension before that drama builds.

Back in May, Holtby said he would love the idea of signing an extension, as Regan reported.

“I would love that,” Holtby said. “That’s not something that I’m going to try and dwell on or whatever. I’m pretty realistic about what goes on in the business and such. My focus is going to be to put in everything I can this summer to make sure I’m ready to help this team win next year. Everything outside of that you let sort itself out. But it’s pretty clear that I love it here and love this team and the city, but that’s the motivation to work hard and make sure that I do everything I can to make sure we stay here.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

While most players say they love where they’re playing, it doesn’t hurt to hear Holtby say that he would prefer to stay. In the case of Bobrovsky and the Florida Panthers, Bobrovsky is heading into an uncertain (though sunny) situation, with a franchise that has been mired in irrelevance for decades.

Also: having two promising, if very different, goalie options to choose from for the future is the sort of “problem” most NHL teams would love to have.

Either way, it will be interesting to find out if the Capitals pay up to keep Holtby, go bold and cheap with Samsonov, or find some sort of compromise (like Pekka Rinne slowly passing the torch to Juuse Saros in Nashville?).

It will also be interesting to find out if the Capitals end up regretting certain previous bets. That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon with Evgeny Kuznetsov (27, $7.8M through 2024-25) and John Carlson surprised some with how emphatically he lived up to his raise to $8M (through 2025-26). But they took a serious risk with T.J. Oshie, in particular, as he’s already 32, yet his $5.75M AAV won’t expire until after the 2024-25 season.

If the Capitals are able to sign Holtby, Backstrom, and Ovechkin after their current deals expire, it might mean having to make other painful changes.

A lot can change between now and when they truly need to make those calls. After disappointing GMs with a modest bump to $81.5M for 2019-20, it’s possible that the ceiling could lift to unexpected heights for 2020-21, and so on.

Here’s advice to Capitals fans, then: cherish this next season, because it’s possible that this team is nearing a time of significant changes.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Tallon addresses Panthers’ needs, confident about playoff chances

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Dale Tallon’s quest to land both Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin fell short, but he was able to add one of them to the Florida Panthers’ roster for the next seven years.

Following Roberto Luongo’s retirement, it was clear that the main target for Tallon in free agency was a No. 1 goaltender. Enter Bobrovsky, who will turn 31 in September and has been on the Panthers’ radar since it was clear he wouldn’t be returning to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The general manager promised to be aggressive this summer and he backed that up by adding the netminder, forwards Brett Connolly and Noel Acciari, as well as defenseman Anton Stralman.

That’s $107 million in contracts handed out on the first day of NHL free agency. Panthers owner Vinnie Viola was going to spend, especially after they were able to bring Joel Quenneville to Sunrise as head coach. Having Q on board almost helped them in their pursuit of Panarin given their history in Chicago, but Monday still ended up being a good day, at least in the immediate future.

Bobrovsky’s seven-year, $70 million contract will likely look ugly in a few years considering how most goaltenders tail off once they hit north of 30 years old. But the Panthers needed a further injection of excitement after hiring Quenneville. 

“As a group we felt we needed to make some changes to our roster to get it deeper so we could make a good run for the playoffs. We addressed some needs,” Tallon said. “We have plenty of scoring ability, plenty of offense. We had to address compete, physicality and goals-against. Those were the concerns we had, and I think we did a good job of addressing those needs.”

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

Bobrovsky’s 115 wins over the last three seasons is tops in the NHL, and his .931 even strength save percentage over that span is second to only Pekka Rinne, per Natural Stat Trick.

“He’s a two-time Vezina Trophy winner who gives you a chance to win every night,” Tallon said. “He’s durable and is a very good player. He’s a student of the game. Nobody works harder so it will be interesting to see guys like [Aleksander] Barkov and Bobrovsky working off the ice like that. It will be a great example for our young players to follow.”

Tallon filled areas of need on Monday and with three months until the 2019-20 season begins, there’s still time to add. He’s confident of the strides the organization has made and how improved his roster looks at the moment — so much so that he sees the Panthers playing beyond game No. 82 next season.

“I like our chances now,” Tallon said. “I think we’ve got a legitimate chance to be in the playoffs. It starts behind the bench with [Quenneville] and then goaltending. I think our young [defensemen] will be better too with the coaching that Joel’s going to bring.

“And then our offense is going to be fine. We have pretty well the same guys. We’ll have a good power play, and we’ll have good special teams. Now it’s just a matter of 5-on-5 play. We’ve got more options in that regard and more durability longer term.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Lightning goalie Vasilevskiy wins first Vezina Trophy

Andrei Vasilevskiy has been an elite goalie for the Tampa Bay Lightning for some time. His strong recent work paid off as he won the 2019 Vezina Trophy, his first such award.

The other finalists were Ben Bishop of the Dallas Stars and Robin Lehner of the New York Islanders. Lehner won the Masterton Trophy earlier in the 2019 NHL Awards.

You can tell that this is a bittersweet night for Vasilevskiy and the rest of the Lightning, as it’s clear that the wounds haven’t totally healed from that shocking first Round 1 sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

That shouldn’t take away from a strong season for Vasilevskiy, and the Lightning in general, so this award is part of that haul. Lightning teammate Nikita Kucherov has already started collecting his awards, and is likely to add more before the trophies are all handed out.

As you can see from the voting results, Vasilevskiy won by a large margin. Personally, I believe Bishop had a strong argument in his own right, but this is a fine choice:

Last year, Pekka Rinne won the Vezina, beating out Vasilevskiy, who was a finalist.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT Morning Skate: MacKinnon won’t need surgery; Is Voracek on trade block?

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Here’s the NBC Sports Stanley Cup playoff update for May 15

• Avs forward Nathan MacKinnon will not need surgery to repair his injured shoulder. (NHL.com)

• Should the Philadelphia Flyers put Jakub Voracek on the trade block? (Broad Street Hockey)

• What will Jordan Binnington‘s next contract look like? The Hockey News takes a deeper look. (The Hockey News)

Jaden Schwartz has helped carry the St. Louis Blues to the Western Conference Final. (TSN)

• ESPN gives us a list of the weirdest controversies in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (ESPN)

• The Predators are hoping that Pekka Rinne can help them hoist the Stanley Cup next year. (On the Forecheck)

• Stars head coach Jim Montgomery made the transition from the NCAA to the NHL look easier than it really is. (Defending Big D)

• If the Pens trade Phil Kessel, it can’t simply be addition by subtraction. (Pittsburgh Tribune)

• Capitals goalie prospects Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov found a way to get along in the AHL this season. (NBC Sports Washington)

• Is Dan Girardi‘s 13 years of experience an asset or a liability for the Tampa Bay Lightning? (Tampa Bay Times)

• The Red Wings could opt to trade Andreas Athanasiou or Anthony Mantha in order to get themselves a proven defenseman. (Detroit News)

• What will the Chicago Blackhawks do with the third overall pick in the draft? (NBC Sports Chicago)

• What will Vegas’ roster look like if they can’t find a way to bring back William Karlsson. (Sinbin.Vegas)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Stars count on another great Game 7 from Ben Bishop

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With goals being very tough to come by during this Round 2 series, it’s only natural that the goalie matchup of Ben Bishop vs. Jordan Binnington looms large over Game 7 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live stream) between the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues.

There are some fun narratives to wrap around the situation, too. Bishop, 32, is no stranger to big games, with 48 career playoff games to his name, and a sparkling .927 save percentage to combine quality with that quantity. Jordan Binnington, 25, only has 45 NHL games combined (33 regular season, 12 playoffs) in his career so far, yet he’s been a revelation for the Blues. It’s a shame that Bishop never seemed to provide Binnington tutelage during his growth as a goalie (as far as I know?), as this situation just begs for a “master vs. pupil” storyline.

If that wasn’t enough, there’s also the elephant/Bishop-sized goalie in the room: is Bishop even truly healthy enough to play in Game 7 after being shaken up by that scary Colton Parayko shot that preceded a controversial goal in the Blues’ Game 6 win over Bishop’s Stars?

As with just about any prominent injury during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, those of us outside of a team’s inner circle can only speculate about a player’s health. We can only read what we can from Game 7 itself on Tuesday, and skeptically take the Stars’ word for it about Bishop being OK.

So, let’s play along and believe that Bishop is good enough to go for Game 7.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Stars think Bishop could be Game 7 difference-maker

With that in mind, Bishop’s experience comes to play in the very specific, very pressure-packed setting of Game 7s. He’s experienced two such contests during his NHL career, winning both and earning a shutout (and even an assist) in each Game 7 back during the Lightning’s charge to a defeat in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

As Matthew DeFranks reports for the Dallas Morning News, Stars coach Jim Montgomery does indeed believe that Bishop’s experience will come in handy.

“Yeah, for sure it is a big advantage when your goaltender has been in these games before,” Montgomery said. “He’s been to the Stanley Cup finals, and he’s had success in these kinds of games. … He’s very even-keel. The way he approaches his games, whether it is a regular season or a Game 7, Bish is always dialed into the right mind-set to give him success.”

Again, the Stars are opening themselves up to criticism if Bishop isn’t truly healthy. In years past (see: Martin Brodeur against the Avalanche; Pekka Rinne versus the Predators), a few early Game 7 goals allowed can be lethal in a tightly matched series. The Stars have a highly qualified backup in Anton Khudobin, so if Bishop gives up a regrettable goal or two — maybe top shelf stuff that he, erm, can’t reach right now? — then people will question the decision not just to go with Khudobin.

Yet, when you look at Bishop’s big-game performances, and his dominant work this season (especially lately), it’s easy to see why the Stars would lean on him.

Bishop’s two Game 7 shutouts

Actually, with that in mind, it might be fun to take a trip down memory lane. Here’s a deeper look at Bishop’s two Game 7 experiences from that Lightning run. It gives some insight on how alert and impressive Bishop was, and is also a reminder of how quickly things can change in the NHL. Admit it: this makes 2015 seem like ages ago, although maybe global politics also make those memories seem ancient, too.

April 29, 2015: Lightning beat Red Wings 2-0 in Game 7 in Round 1.

If you remember this game, you might recall it as Tampa Bay being pretty fortunate to get out of that series … and by a lot of indications, that Game 7 looks that way in retrospect.

There was an ice-in-the-veins moment for Bishop, as he went way out of his net, Hasek-style, to try to thwart a Drew Miller chance. It almost backfired, as Miller flipped the puck over Bishop, but it didn’t result in a goal.

Braydon Coburn‘s goal was the only moment where either goalie allowed one, as the second tally was an empty-netter, which Bishop earned an assist on. Bishop pitched a 31-save shutout against the Red Wings, while the Lightning’s goal came on just 16 shots against Petr Mrazek. Natural Stat Trick lists some interesting numbers that back up the Red Wings carrying the play, sometimes glaringly.

Tampa Bay did keep most of the Red Wings’ chances to the outside, as Detroit only enjoyed a more modest 5-4 advantage in high-danger scoring chances at even-strength. That could be a key element to Game 7 between the Stars and Blues; Jim Montgomery’s system (and defenders like John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen) has done a great job of mostly keeping chances to the perimeter, which can make Bishop feel that much more unbeatable when he’s “on.”

May 29, 2015: Lightning beat Rangers 2-0 in Round 3

The storylines were pretty rich with this one.

Heading into this Game 7, much was made about the “mystique” of playing such a big contest at Madison Square Garden, particularly against a very sharp Henrik Lundqvist. That wasn’t just media-friendly hyperbole, either; the Rangers had been undefeated in Game 7s at MSG at the time, and the Rangers won the Presidents Trophy for the 2014-15 season. As impressive as the Lightning were even then, it’s fair to place them as the underdogs in that one, after being the favorites against the stalwart Red Wings in that Round 1 matchup.

The Lightning did a much better job of controlling play against the Rangers in that Game 7 than they did against the Red Wings two rounds earlier. Via Natural Stat Trick, the Bolts generated a 10-4 high-danger chance advantage at even-strength, and Bishop needed only a fairly modest 22 saves to earn a shutout.

Interestingly, in both Game 7s, the score was tied 0-0 through the first two periods. A more “nervy” goalie might have been rattled by the low margin of error, but Bishop seemingly kept his emotions in check.

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The Stars are a different team than the Lightning were, and Bishop’s an older goalie, but it’s still interesting to ponder the past. If Bishop’s anywhere near full-strength, then the Blues might just have to cross their fingers for a goal or two in Game 7.

At least if the right kind of history repeats for Bishop and the Stars.

Game 7 of Stars – Blues takes place at 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday; You can watch it on NBCSN and stream it here.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.